WPS Global Early Warning Tool September 2021 Quarterly Update
Our machine learning model predicts peace or conflict over the next 12 months. It does this on the basis of 15-20 global indicators that serve as model inputs. These indicators were selected as most significant in predicting conflict from among over 200 indicators tested. We define conflict as one that produces 10 or more deaths in any given second subnational administrative unit over a 12-month period. Generally speaking, our predictions of ongoing conflict are a lot more accurate than our predictions of emerging conflict. We continue to work on improving our model and extending its geographic coverage.
The model is still predicting conflict across much of Syria and Iraq (see orange and yellow regions in the upper map); however, it is predicting more peace in this region than it did last year (see blue regions in lower map), even as the regional drought intensifies. In southeastern Turkey, the model is now mostly predicting peace instead of conflict. In Iran, the model is predicting conflict in both the southwest and the southeast, along the borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In Ethiopia, the model is predicting more areas of conflict in the north, where the armed conflict in Tigray is taking place, as compared with last year. The transboundary dispute with Egypt and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam continues without resolution (our model does not look at transboundary conflict, although we do have individual indicators, such as relative risk for hydro-political tension of basins, that quantify transboundary basin risk).
The model is also predicting emerging conflict in northern Kenya, along the border with Ethiopia, as well as ongoing conflict further south. And the model is predicting ongoing conflict throughout most of South Sudan, which has continued to see large-scale flood-related displacements.
In western Sahel countries, including Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria, our machine learning model is predicting emerging and ongoing conflict in many parts of the region. Compared with the last year, however, there are many places in these countries where the model is now predicting peace instead of conflict (see blue regions in lower map).
In southeastern Africa, the model is predicting ongoing conflict in the northern Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique, but it is no longer predicting conflict in central Mozambique. In regions of central and southern Madagascar, the model is now predicting peace instead of conflict, but conflict is still being predicted across much of the rest of the island, including in the drought-stricken south.
In India and countries east (except for Myanmar), the model is now predicting peace, a significant improvement from last year. It could be that COVID is reducing the number of current conflicts throughout much of the developing world, thereby influencing the model’s predictions for the coming 12 months.
STORIES WE ARE TRACKING
Kenya: emergency declared as drought deepens
In September 2021 the government of Kenya declared the ongoing drought a national disaster, as 2.1 million people faced starvation across the arid north, northeastern, and coastal parts of the country. The UN has followed this with the launch of a UN flash appeal for help.
Kenya has experienced two consecutive unusually dry rainy seasons – late 2020 and early 2021 – and the next rainy season is again expected to see below normal levels of rainfall. This drought is coming on top of locust attacks and the COVID crisis that was already affecting livelihoods throughout the country.
The drought is thought to be one of the reasons for an increase in clashes between different communities throughout Northern Kenya. In July, an increase in conflict was seen in Marsabit county, in August, clashes were reported along the border between Turkana county and South Sudan and in September a series of attacks took place in Laikipia county, along the border with Baringo county, which left about 9 people killed, many houses burned, hundreds of people displaced and over a thousand cattle stolen. Although conflicts emerge around disputes over land, water, cattle and pastures, the clashes also have a political dimension and according to many should be seen in the context of the run-up to the 2022 elections.
syria: drought intensifies
In our last quarterly update, we reported that water flows in the Euphrates River from Turkey, which has also experienced several seasons of drought, had fallen by over 50% over the previous six months. This regional drought has since intensified.
According to aid groups, Syria is now suffering its worst drought in 70 years, worse even than the catastrophic drought that hit Syria in the years leading up to the outbreak of civil war in 2011. The drought is so intense that many farmers are under pressure to leave the region for lack of irrigation water and even drinking water. Meanwhile, low river flows are such that two major dams in northern Syria risk closure. Over 5 million people in Syria are being impacted by low flows in the Euphrates River. Hundreds of kilometers of agricultural land face “total drought.” And 3 million people risk losing access to electricity. Meanwhile, there are outbreaks of water-borne illnesses in camps for internally displaced people.
The WPS Global Early Warning Tool predicts ongoing conflict throughout most of Syria over the next 12 months (see first map above). Interestingly, the model now predicts peace instead of conflict for portions of eastern Syria, but not for the part of Syria where the Euphrates flows (see second map above).
iraq: continued low flows in euphrates and tigris rivers
In our last quarterly update, we reported that drought in the region, including in Turkey and Iran, had dramatically reduced water flows in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which provide over 90% of Iraq’s freshwater. The Minister of Water Resources told a press conference in May that flow rates in both rivers had been cut in half, compared to the same period last year.
The drought has since intensified. Aid groups report that “in Iraq, large swathes of farmland, fisheries, power production and drinking water sources have been depleted, threatening the lives of at least seven million people.” In the Nineveh governorate, which lies in the Tigris basin, wheat production is expected to fall by 70% due to the drought. In the Kurdish region of Iraq – which also lies in the Tigris basin – wheat production is expected to decline by 50%. In Anbar province – parts of which lie in the Euphrates basin – some people are having to pay $80 per month for water, an unaffordable sum for most.
People in Iraq and Syria are quick to blame Turkey and Iran, who have dammed the two river systems upstream. But these upstream countries are dealing with drought themselves. Turkey has appeared more amenable to discussing water security with Iraqi officials, although an international agreement on water flows still seems far away. Iran has appeared much less willing to discuss water security issues with its downstream neighbor. Iran is facing significant water crises of its own and has so far failed to mount adequate responses to them (see below).
Chances of resolving water issues with Iran remain bleak for now, ahead of elections in Iran. But agreement is crucial given the current drought and predictions that next year will be dry as well.
The WPS Global Early Warning Tool predicts emerging and ongoing conflict throughout much of Iraq over the next 12 months.
Turkey has leveraged its extensive damming of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to support regional electric power production and agricultural development. But as the upstream riparian (the two rivers originate in Turkey, as do most of their flows), Turkey has obligations to its downstream neighbors.
Samah Hadid of the Norwegian Refugee Council notes that “Turkey itself is being hit by the climate crisis, and low rainfall. But it really is necessary that Turkey releases more water into those rivers because millions of [people] rely on those rivers.”
Dursun Yildiz, president of the Ankara-based Hydropolitics Association, observes that the biggest issues are that there are few agreements between Turkey and Iraq on how water is shared, and few efforts to more efficiently use the water that is available. As the water crisis in the Euphrates-Tigris Basin intensifies, the likelihood of such an agreement being negotiated in the near-term decreases. Nonetheless, a recently agreed memorandum of understanding between both countries to resolve the outstanding inquiries into the Tigris Protocol and to establish a joint research center for water provides some hope for the future. Although it won’t lead to an international agreement just yet, the research center, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources, is the start of a new era of Iraqi-Turkish bilateral relations in the field of water, supporting expert information sharing and the development of joint studies and field visits for improved water management practices.
The WPS Global Early Warning Tool predicts emerging conflict in two small regions of southern Turkey near the Syrian borders over the next 12 months. But in most regions of southern and eastern Turkey where the model predicted conflict a year ago, it is now predicting peace. This could mean that Turkey’s water resources development projects indeed contribute – at least short term – to alleviating the domestic water crisis and mitigating conflict risks related to it. This does, however, seem to come at the expense of other countries in the basin as well as regional cooperation and stability.
IRAN: drought and chronic water stress
Like the other countries in the region, Iran has been facing severe drought this year. In late April, Deputy Energy Minister for Water and Wastewater Affairs Ghasem Taqizadeh Khamesi declared that water storage in the country’s dams had declined 20 percent over the past year.
Khuzestan Province in southwest Iran has been hit particularly hard. The Karun River – Iran’s largest – flows into the Shatt al-Arab in oil-rich Khuzestan province, then forming the border between Iran and Iraq, before emptying into the Persian Gulf. But this river has now largely dried up. Other smaller rivers are facing the same fate – both due to climate change and drought as well as man-made problems such as over-extraction and the diversion of many of these rivers towards central Iran. The same is true for wetlands, which have been drained for oil drilling, depriving them of their important water regulation function and leading to severe environmental damage. Groundwater levels have been dropping as well. As a consequence, in July 2021, residents of the capital of the province, Ahvaz, were repeatedly left without water, while suffering under temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius.
With livelihoods and economic opportunities deteriorating due to water shortages, thousands of people took to the streets in protest. Authorities responded with "deadly automatic weapons, shotguns with inherently indiscriminate ammunition, and tear gas" to disperse them. According to Amnesty International, at least eight protesters and bystanders were killed across the province in the crack-down.
There have been protests elsewhere across Iran – including in Tehran, Isfahan, Tabriz, Bojnourd, Saghez, and other big cities – to express solidarity with the people of Khuzestan and anger at the ruling party, which has responded with arrests and attempts at shutting down social media. At the same time, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has expressed his sympathy with the demands of the protesters and promised that water would be made a top priority. While they have thus far failed to improve water resources management or address climate change, it appears that Iran’s leadership is aware of the crisis and its impacts on livelihoods as well as on broader national stability and security.
Over the next 12 months, the WPS Global Early Warning Tool predicts emerging conflict in southwestern Iran, near the Iraqi border, and emerging and ongoing conflict in southeastern Iran, near the borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
afghanistan: drought and economic turmoil
Severe drought has also returned to Afghanistan. Back in June, the International Rescue Committee was reporting that “[a] drastic reduction in rainfall has caused levels of food and water scarcity across 25 provinces in Afghanistan not seen since the drought of 2018 that displaced a quarter of a million people.” The take-over by the Taliban is further intensifying the country’s water governance crisis.
In early September, the World Food Programme (WFP) reported that 40% of the wheat crop had been lost to drought and food prices were spiking. The Afghan economy is now said to be in free-fall, work is very scarce, and only 5% of households have enough to eat every day, according to WFP. This situation is affecting both urban and rural residents, the poor and middle classes. On top of everything else, the UN is warning that the nation’s healthcare system is on the brink of collapse. At the same time, hardly any help from outside is reaching the Afghan people as development aid and emergency relief have largely stalled.
The Taliban take-over might also have implications for water relations with neighboring countries, especially Iran. Iran seems to be hoping that water infrastructure development projects planned and implemented by the previous Afghan government will come to a halt, thus reducing negative impacts on downstream Iran for at least some time. And it indeed seems as if the Taliban have allowed for more water to flow down the Helmand River since they took over – although it remains unclear whether this was a conscious choice or rather a result of suddenly reduced water management and dam operation capacities as officials of the previous government were ousted. In the long run, there also seem to be hopes on the Iranian side that a Taliban government will take a friendlier stance in negotiations over international water flows.
The WPS Global Early Warning Tool predicts ongoing conflict throughout most of Afghanistan over the next 12 months.
israel-Jordan cooperation on water
In early July, it was reported that Israel and Jordan had agreed to an “unprecedented” sale of water by Israel to Jordan. The sale of 50 million cubic meters of water effectively doubles the amount of water that Israel sells or gives to Jordan. New technologies are reducing the cost of desalination, enabling Israel to transfer water to Jordan without threatening domestic demand.
Yemen water crisis
According to UNHCR, Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis as a result of six years of civil war. Four million people have been driven from their homes and 20 million – two-thirds of the population – are in dire need of assistance. Long before the latest conflict broke out, water scarcity was widespread throughout the country and Yemeni cities were predicted to run out of water. At the same time, flash floods regularly hit the country, most recently across more than 18 governorates, causing additional destruction and misery and in July 2021 alone affecting more than 34,000 families. Much of Yemen’s water infrastructure – already antiquated – has been destroyed during the conflict, oftentimes deliberately. In addition to the water crisis, the country is also facing a food crisis. According to the WFP, up to 45% of the population in the country does not have enough food to eat. This situation is likely to worsen as the WFP is likely to run out of food supplies to provide to the Yemeni population starting this month.
Many families are fleeing the countryside and crowding into cities, where they are struggling to obtain water from tanker trucks at exorbitant prices (and in competition with local communities). Even urban dwellers with water connections are only able to access water for a few hours a couple of days a week. Young people in cities across south Yemen are protesting violently in the streets, demanding economic opportunity and services, such and electricity and water. “‘We came out to protest after our life has become impossible. There is no electricity, no water, and salaries can't buy us anything. We are not going to wait until we die,’ said Ahmed Saleh, 34, a protester and government employee.” International humanitarian support, provided by international agencies as well as non-governmental organizations, is falling short of tremendous needs.
The WPS Global Early Warning Tool predicts emerging or ongoing conflict throughout much of south Yemen over the next 12 months. There are a number of areas, however, where our model is now predicting peace instead of conflict.
IMPROVEMENTS OR DETERIORATION FROM PREVIOUS QUARTERS
SOUTH SUDAN: FLOODING
In our March 2021 quarterly update, we reported that over one million people had been affected by heavy flooding in South Sudan, which submerged homes, farmland and livestock. Of those displaced, UN OCHA reports that 100,000 have still not returned home. Now, following the early onset of seasonal rains, UN OCHA is reporting that flooding has displaced another 426,000, including 185,000 children.
Despite the enormous need for humanitarian assistance in South Sudan, UN OCHA warned in August that it had only received 54% of the $1.7 billion required to pay for country programs, while the UN World Food Programme was forced to suspend food aid to over 100,000 displaced people and warned of further cuts unless it received additional funds. FloodList reports that “Heavy rains, infrastructure damage and reduced physical accessibility, funding constraints and insecurity have hampered the flood response.”
The WPS Global Early Warning Tool predicts emerging or ongoing conflict throughout much of South Sudan over the next 12 months.
ethiopia: grand ethiopian renaissance dam
In our last quarterly update, we reported that trilateral negotiations among Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and its filling have been acrimonious and unsuccessful to date. In late June, Sudan rejected Ethiopia’s plans for a second round of filling.
In mid-September, the UN Security Council weighed in, calling on the three countries to “take forward the AU-led negotiation process in a constructive and cooperative manner.” Egypt and Sudan welcomed the statement, but Ethiopia responded that it regrets the Council “pronounces itself over an issue of water right and development that is outside of its mandate.” The WPS Global Early Warning Tool is not currently designed to predict state-on-state conflict, although we do have individual indicators, such as relative risk for hydro-political tension of basins, that quantify transboundary basin risk.
madagascar: extended drought
In late June the UN’s World Food Programme, announced hat over a million people in southern Madagascar were facing starvation and about 14,000 people were already in famine-like conditions. According to media reports, the country has been suffering successive droughts since 2014.
By early September FEWS NET was reporting that “without large-scale aid after October, area-level Emergency (IPC Phase 4) remains likely.” IPC Phase 4 is the category just before “Famine” (IPC Phase 5). Other journalists are reporting of fields transformed into dust bowls and of villages being abandoned. It is uncertain whether or not rainfall will rebound across parts of the region, but many farmers lack the seeds or cuttings to plant regardless.
The WPS Global Early Warning Tool predicts emerging or ongoing conflict throughout much of southern Madagascar over the next 12 months. There are a couple of regions, however, where our model is now predicting peace instead of conflict.
OTHER REGIONS OF INTEREST
One of the worst droughts in living memory, together with an intense summer heat wave, has led to the mass death of horses and other livestock across western Kazakhstan. The drought has also devastated crops, leading to increased prices of hay, barley and other animal food, and depleted water sources. This is likely to affect water and food security in the coming months. WPS will continue to monitor the situation.
Brazil and neighboring countries: drought
A regional drought that began in late 2019 is impacting crop production, hydroelectric power production, river transportation, and water for human consumption across much of midwestern and southern Brazil, as well as in neighboring countries, including Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. Massive deforestation in the Amazon is thought to be disrupting the region’s hydrological cycle. This phenomenon – together with global climate change – are believed to be driving more frequent and intense drought in the region.
The Paraná River – South America’s second longest – has reached its lowest level in 80 years, owing to the drought in Brazil, where the river originates. A recent article notes that “so low are levels of the Paraná running through Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina that some ranchers are herding cattle across dried-up riverbeds typically lined with cargo-toting barges. Raging wildfires in Paraguay have brought acrid smoke to the limits of the capital. Earlier this year, the rushing cascades of Iguazu Falls on the Brazilian-Argentine frontier reduced to a relative drip.”
The drought is hampering the ability of the regional economy to rebound from COVID-19. The drought’s economic impacts will likely soar into the billions of dollars as crops are decimated, mining slows down, transportation costs surge, and energy shortages proliferate.
chile: “southern blob” drives megadrought
On the other side of South America, Chile has fallen victim to another regional climate change phenomenon, made worse by global warming. There is a very large area of warm water (the size of Australia) in the southwest Pacific Ocean known as the “Southern Blob.” This blob – which appeared four decades ago – has grown bigger and hotter with climate change. Researchers now believe the blob is causing a shift in rainfall from the west coast of South America southwards towards Antarctica, providing an explanation for the megadrought that Chile has been experiencing since 2010. This region hasn’t seen a drought of this magnitude in over 1,000 years.
The megadrought has had devastating effects on rural livelihoods across Chile, decimating crops and livestock. Reservoir levels have fallen precipitously, and many rural communities now rely on tanker trucks for their water supply.
In our last quarterly update, we noted that many stories have begun referring to the on-and-off drought in the western U.S. region over the past 20 years as a “megadrought” – the worst seen in the region in 1,200 years. Unfortunately, as of the third week of September, 94% of the US West remains in drought, and with La Niña on the horizon, it is believed that conditions in the US Southwest will be going from bad to worse.
On the Colorado River, the country’s two largest man-made reservoirs – Lake Mead and Lake Powell – are seeing their water levels plumet at alarming rates, jeopardizing water supply and hydroelectric power production for millions of people. It seems that major changes will be required in how we use water in the West in order to accommodate a permanent reduction in water supply. In mid-August, the federal government for the first time declared a water shortage at Lake Mead. This initial declaration, by prior agreement, will require a 20% reduction in water supplies to farmers in Arizona via the Central Arizona Project.
Very heavy rainfall fell in western Germany from July 12-15, causing severe flooding in the German states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate, as well as in Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands. The river flooding destroyed whole villages in some instances and caused over 200 fatalities. One source noted that “at the Ahr river, the flood is estimated to be a 500-year event or rarer according to preliminary data.” The German government has approved €30 billion (about $35 billion) to rebuild homes, businesses, and infrastructure in the towns most affected by the flooding. This has also triggered a discussion on climate-resilient reconstruction and the need to reconsider urban and rural planning at a time when floods are becoming increasingly common and devastating.
A few days after flooding devastated parts of western Germany in mid-July, massive flooding hit central China, causing widespread destruction in and around the city of Zhengzhou, capital of Henan Province and home to over 10 million people. “In an attempt to release floodwaters and prevent further damage in Zhengzhou, where people were left stranded in schools, offices and on public transport, China’s military blasted a dam following warnings that it could collapse ‘at any moment’ due to storm damage.”
The three-day storm reportedly dropped a year’s worth of water and displaced over a million people across the province. At least 300 people died in what was a 1-in-1000-year flood event according to Zhengzhou meteorologists. It’s uncertain how accurate such calculations are, but one thing is sure: with climate change, such downpours are no longer 1-in-1000-year events.
global food price spikes
In our last quarterly update, we reported that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Price Index for May 2021 was just 7.6% below its peak value reached in February 2011. Some analysts believe there was a link between high food prices in 2011 and the Arab Spring protests. The Food Price Index (in real terms) has now surpassed the 2011 (relative) peak and reached a level not seen since the mid-1970s. Reports from around the world – including both developing and developed countries – are that local food prices have been rising sharply, reaching levels that are out-of-reach for the poorest segments of society. We will continue to track this very important issue as food insecurity and rising food prices are one of the key steps in a causal chain that can link water-related challenges and conflict or instability.
ABOUT WPS AND ITS QUARTERLY UPDATES
Water, Peace and Security (WPS) Partnership. The WPS Partnership offers a platform where actors from national governments of developing countries and the global development, diplomacy, defense, and disaster relief sectors can identify potential water-related conflict hotspots before violence erupts, begin to understand the local context, prioritize opportunities for water interventions, and undertake capacity development and dialogue activities.
The Global Early Warning Tool. Our Global Early Warning Tool provides the initial step in a multi-step process, employing machine-learning to predict conflict over the coming 12 months in Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia. So far it has captured 86% of future conflicts, successfully forecasting more than 9 in 10 “ongoing conflicts” and 6 in 10 “emerging conflicts”.
Quarterly Updates. We are publishing Quarterly Updates to accompany our updated maps. These Quarterly Updates flag some of the hotspot areas we are tracking and describe what journalists and other actors are seeing on the ground. While we are primarily concerned with water- and climate-related conflict, the tool is designed to forecast any type of violent conflict (and can therefore be used by a variety of users interested in conflict).
Our multistep process. Early warning is very important, especially given limits to the number of problems that national and international actors can track and address at one time. Our Global Early Warning Tool ensures that emerging conflicts can get the attention they need, early enough that potential risks can still be mitigated. Our regional- and local-level tools then support the next steps in the process and can be used to verify (or disprove) global model predictions, better understand regional and local conflict dynamics, and begin to identify opportunities for mitigating risk. WPS partners offer training and capacity development to global-, national-, and local-level actors to help them better manage risks. We can also help build constructive dialogues among parties to disputes (and other key stakeholders) that can engender water-related cooperation, peacebuilding, and design of conflict-sensitive interventions.
 The trade-off for this high recall is low precision for emerging conflicts. Around 80% of all emerging conflict forecasts represent false positives, that is, instances where conflict was forecast but did not actually occur. Ongoing conflicts are much easier to accurately predict and have both high recall and high precision (<1% were false positives). We continue to work on improving the early warning model and expect that future versions will be able to better predict conflict.